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When Did the Word ‘Gay’ Stop Meaning ‘Happy’ and Start Referring to Homosexuals? History

When Did the Word ‘Gay’ Stop Meaning ‘Happy’ and Start Referring to Homosexuals?

Written by Alexander Kacala on October 05, 2019
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Earlier uses of the word gay

The word gay has a variety of uses that date back as far as the 13th century. These range from “a person being described as joyous” to also saying that something is “brightly colored.”

The video above also explores other, lesser-known meanings. “I did a quick etymology rundown on the word gay and found some now rare and out-of-date uses that are also pretty cool,” Danielle Bainbridge, the video’s host and creator, explains. “One meaning was to be fine or showily dressed. Another was ‘noble, fine and excellent.’ Another still was light-hearted.”

When did the word gay become associated with sexuality?

Before the word gay was linked to same-sex attraction, it was actually just linked to sexuality in general, heterosexual or homosexual. Starting around the 16th century, some early meanings of gay included being “hedonistic” or “frivolous,” and in the 18th century, “gay houses” was another term for brothels (and not necessarily brothels where same-sex relations were happening).

When did the word gay start referring to same-sex attraction?

Before the word gay, the more common term to describe people who enjoy same-sex relationships and experience same-sex attraction was homosexual. This began in the 19th century. But, as the video describes, the term was linked to the common belief at the time that same-sex attraction was a psychological disorder that could be treated and cured. This also led to many anti-gay (sodomy) laws that sought to criminalize same-sex relationships.

“The practice of considering queer desire and illness has been denounced by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association since 1973 and 1975 respectively,” Bainbridge explains. “However, the shift to using gay in the common language took a bit longer. The New York Times didn’t adopt the use of gay until 1987, although it still doesn’t use it in all contexts. But now GLAAD lists homosexual as an offensive term in their media reference guide supplementing gay as the appropriate stand-in.”

Around the mid-20th century, use of the word gay to describe homosexuality primarily for men became more common practice.

The word began to be used as a way for queer people to communicate with each other without having to use the word homosexual or any other word that listeners or straight people may be able to interpret.

From the video: “In an article for The New York Times called ‘The Decline and Fall of the H Word’ Professor George Chauncey notes that uses of gay in queer communities often operated as a code so that people could express same-sex desire through language without being picked up on by others who would respond negatively to them.”

the word gay

Later, in the 1960s, the word gay became the word used by the gay liberation arguing for the decriminalization of same-sex relationships and equality in all aspects of public life. This helped to bring the use of the word as a symbol of pride into wider use, as it was repurposed and taken up in a positive context of self-identification and group communication.

Slang among queer people is still very much a thing today, with words like “otter” and “bear” being a few examples of words with double meanings that many non-queer people aren’t aware of. This is how the word gay became what it is today.

Check out our video where we asked New Yorkers their knowledge of LGBT slang:

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